Wednesday, May 6, 2015

World War Wednesdays: What's Going on May 2015

     May 2015 is a major period of anniversaries related to the Second World War, which ended seventy years ago this year, and numerous ceremonies around the world are being held this week in commemoration. This week's post covers some of the highlights of the major anniversaries and provides some background information about what is being recognized and in the news lately. It is a significant time to be Canadian, as we reflect on our participation in WWII around the world, and seeing the efforts made to recognize these major contributions should make all of us as proud now as it did in 1945.

Battle of the Atlantic Sunday
Governor General David Johnston lays a wreath during the Battle of the Atlantic Sunday ceremony in Ottawa, May 3
     The first weekend in May is set aside to remember those who served in the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN), the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF), and the Canadian Merchant Navy during the Battle of the Atlantic; the longest battle of the Second World War. The Atlantic Ocean was a crucial lifeline for supply and transportation of Allied forces during the war, making it a major target for German U-Boats (submarines). Though decidedly not a theater of potential war-winning capacity for either side, the objectives for the Battle of the Atlantic were simple: the Allies needed to get as many ships as possible to and from Britain and North America in order to maintain operations in Europe and North Africa, and the Germans needed to use whatever means possible for the Allies to do so. Thus, when a German submarine torpedoed an Allied ship, a portion of the cargo headed to the forces was lost (not major in the grand scheme, but in large number could be detrimental), and similarly, when Allied ships and planes took out a German U-Boat, one potentially effective submarine was eliminated from the effort to sink cargo ships. In order to protect the important supply and troopships from the onslaught of German submarine "wolf packs", Allied ships travelled in "convoy" groups  protected by destroyers and support in the air. Also equipped with the ever-developing radar technology and air intelligence, they increasingly had the ability to detect the submarines and surprise them before a potentially lethal encounter.
A SB2U Vindicator scout bomber from USS Ranger (CV-4) flies anti-submarine patrol over Convoy WS-12, en route to Cape Town, South Africa,  November 27, 1941
An example of the convoy system
Convoy in the Bedford Basin, near Halifax, Nova Scotia, April 1, 1942.

      By 1943, it was apparent that Allied shipping was not significantly affected by the efforts of the German navy, and the Battle of the Atlantic was decidedly in the favour of the Allies. Over the course of the war, not one large troopship was ever sunk by the Germans, a major feat for the Allies. The Battle of the Atlantic is one of the most hard-won but significant Allied victories during the Second World War and involved Canadians in a major way.

The Liberation of the Netherlands
Veterans salute at the Liberation of the Netherlands ceremony
 Holten Canadian War Cemetery, near Arnhem in the Netherlands on May 4, 2015.
     An official Government of Canada delegation will mark the 70th anniversary of the Liberation of the Netherlands, May 3-9, 2015 with commemorative events in that country, honouring the more than 7,600 Canadians who sacrificed their lives during the campaign.
     Due to the nature of the German onslaught in Europe, defeating the Germans meant pushing through the countries which it had occupied in order to drive them back, while simultaneously liberating the people who had been under German control. By September 1944, the Allied armies, advancing from France and Belgium, had reached the southern boundary of the German-occupied Netherlands. The first attempt to break into the Netherlands failed. The First Allied Airborne Army dropped by parachute and glider in an attempt to capture bridges across the Maas and lower Rhine rivers. American paratroops successfully took the Maas bridges, but the British 1st Airborne Division, landing near the Rhine bridge at Arnhem, was all but destroyed by a strong German force. In October and November, the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division cleared the south bank, while 2nd Canadian Infantry Division fought along the north bank. The Germans cut the dykes to let seawater flood the low-lying fields and the attackers were forced to follow narrow, fire-swept routes along the tops of dykes or to attempt amphibious assaults. After an uncomfortable winter spent patrolling through the wet Dutch countryside, the Canadians got the help of their countrymen from Italy, who advanced quickly north from the Rhine through the eastern Netherlands to the North Sea. Although the fighting was never easy, and continued nearly to the last day of the war, the German resistance collapsed from lack of supplies and manpower. In the western Netherlands, getting food to the starving Dutch population in their flooded villages was the major task. Finally, there was a ceasefire, allowing food to be dropped by parachute or trucked in. Thus, this operation meant the survival of the Dutch civilian population who had suffered major hunger and hardship under German rule. The warm friendship that Canada still enjoys with the Netherlands is a poignant reminder of the ultimate sacrifice made by thousands of Canadians and the enduring gratitude of the Dutch in ending the reign of tyranny in their country.
Canadian troops signing autographs in a liberated Dutch town
The liberation of Amsterdam
VE Day
     On 8 May 1945, both Great Britain and the United States celebrated Victory in Europe Day following the German unconditional surrender. Cities in both nations, as well as formerly occupied cities in Western Europe, put out flags and banners, rejoicing in the defeat of the Nazi war machine. On 3 May 2015, Prime Minister Stephen Harper attended the VE Day commemoration in the Netherlands as part of the simultaneous 70th anniversary of the liberation. The eighth of May spelled the day when German troops throughout Europe finally laid down their arms (though not against the Russians in the east until the next day). VE Day is a significant anniversary not just for those who had witnessed the horrors of the Second World War firsthand, but for every person alive at the time. The war affected every aspect of daily life, from the food they ate to the jobs they held to their general outlook on the world and the people in it. Both in 1945 and today, it is a bittersweet occasion marked with both jubilation and somber thought for the sacrifices required from all of the Allied forces to achieve victory. As Winston Churchill said during his May 8th broadcast declaring victory, "To-day, perhaps, we shall think mostly of ourselves. To-morrow we shall pay a particular tribute to our Russian comrades, whose prowess in the field has been one of the grand contributions to the general victory". The occasion is thus a combination of all emotional extremes, a culmination of equal parts harrowing and unifying experiences, and a significant shared experience by all citizens of the victorious Allied countries.
Winston Churchill waves to crowds in Whitehall on the day he broadcast to the nation that the war with Germany had been won, 8 May 1945 (VE Day).

V-E Day celebrations, Bay Street Toronto, May 7, 1945.
V-E Day celebrations, Ottawa

     Whether or not you participate in commemorative events for these significant days in our history, one can't help but reflect on what a significance seventy years makes. We truly are a lucky country to mark these anniversaries with the gratefulness and appreciation of the nations our men and women helped to liberate, and Canadians really made a name for themselves during the war years. I remember the contributions of our local Elgin County soldiers and citizens during this bittersweet time. Who are you remembering?

Thanks for reading,

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